Why Virtual Trade Shows and Events Failed so Miserably

Categories: Covid-19 and Trade Shows

Well, virtual and live broadcast events, you had your chance.

There’s been talk of technology stepping in to fill the shoes of that old and ancient industry we call trade shows.

That was their moment in the light to shine bright and finally bump off that aging and antiquated convention business. I mean, who in their right mind wants to fork out a ton of money only to have to slog across the country and spend days setting up exhibits, just to take them down again over and over, city after city.

The Internet has matured to a high degree of technology, equipped with 4K live video streams. With the ability to gather eyeballs from every corner of the world and broadcast live for each and every industry professional.

It’s a no-brainer, right?

I gotta tell you, a lot of people thought so, and it spawned a heavy wave of venture capital with most of the tech heavyweights investing millions, even billions, into the virtual event space.

And with the world watching and in-person trade shows having both their hands tied behind their back for over a year as large gatherings were banned, the results are in…

Virtual events failed miserably.

Let me be clear, they didn’t fail on their ability to get a lot of people signed up for this event or that event. They failed by thinking it would replace face-to-face events.

So what happened here? What’s the postmortem analysis that we can look back on and determine what happened?

Reason #1, Why Virtual Tradeshows Failed

Many thought virtual versus face-to-face would be a lot more similar than dissimilar. They were wrong.

Reason #2, Why Virtual Tradeshows Failed

Virtual (for the most part) ended up being a communication of one-to-many. One speaker to thousands of online attendees. An in-person convention hall consists of thousands of one-to-one conversations, all happening at once. These are the chats when business gets done and relationships are forged.

Reason #3, Why Virtual Tradeshows Failed

People thought they sucked and were boring. Harsh? I know, but let’s face it, it ended up being what we economics majors called “inferior products.”

Virtual trade shows were an inferior experience for the millions of people who, at some point along the way in their careers, had attended a convention prior to COVID. They were able to compare, and they made it quite clear that the experience was lackluster against seeing people live and in person at shows.

Reason #4, Why Virtual Tradeshows Failed

Organizers failed to put exhibiting companies front and center. Those who understand conventions and trade shows have learned something. The companies paying big bucks to reserve space and exhibit at a show are the ones who finance the show.

The exhibitors. Not the attendees, but the exhibitors.

Often, attendees get into these B2B shows for free, while the exhibiting companies pay tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Virtual events gave these companies a  virtual booth, and I heard from so many of them about the poor results.

Here’s a firsthand account from one of my customers at a virtual conference during COVID. “We had six visitors to our online booth. One was a potential lead, two were existing customers, and three were people trying to sell us something.” Hardly worth it!

Reason #5, Why Virtual Tradeshows Failed

In the spring of 2021, restrictions started to lift and people once again had a choice. The message was loud and clear. People wanted to see each other face-to-face again. Sometimes it’s not about meeting new people, but rather about reinforcing existing relationships and having work discussions over dinner.

I could go on and on and come up with probably 20 or more other reasons, but by now you get my point.

Humans have to be humans and venture off to visit cities, meet new people, and experience things firsthand rather than through a computer or smartphone screen. To be able to discover things organically. Touch, feel, see, smell, etc.


Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for virtual events, especially in the one-to-many communication formats such as education, seminars, etc.

But to every person who said, “I don’t think in-person trade shows will ever come back” when they were being forced to shut down—clearly you underestimated a very resolute and steadfast industry that has bounced back stronger than ever.

Talk to me when you take a virtual vacation or spend the holidays with loved ones… virtually.

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